In preparation for writing my own historical fiction (OMG, what am I thinking?), I decided to reread ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ by Joan Lindsay (Chatto & Windus, 1968). This historical gothic novel is full of mystery and suspense and holds readers taut with suspense right until the very last page. We never find out what happened to the girls and their teacher who disappeared at the site of a monolith in the Australian bush.

‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ was reportedly written in just four weeks at Lindsay’s home in Mulberry Hill. The tale is set in 1900 in the Australian bush and the girls’ disappearance occurs on St Valentine’s Day. Lindsay said that atmosphere was essential to the tale and created a strong sense of atmosphere throughout the story.

While they were talking the angle of vision had gradually altered to bring the Hanging Rock into sudden startling view. Directly ahead, the grey volcanic mass rose up slabbed and pinnacled like a fortress from the empty yellow plain. The three girls on the box seat could see the vertical lines of the rocky walls, now and then gashed with indigo shade, patches of grey green dogwood, outcrops of boulders even at this distance immense and formidable. At the summit, apparently bare of living vegetation, a jagged line of rock cut across the serene blue of the sky. The driver was casually flicking at the amazing thing with his long handled whip. ‘There she is ladies…only about a mile and a half to go!

Lindsay said that at its heart ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ was a mystery and that the mystery should remain although she did hint that it was linked to a true story. Lindsay used to get quite cross with readers who wrote to her seeking answers! Here’s a link to a lovely video with Lindsay talking about her life, writing and of course, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’.

The characters portrayed in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ are richly drawn. Mrs Appleyard, the intimidating Headmistress of Appleyard College is perhaps my favourite character. She is thoroughly unlikeable and by the end of the book, she has become a pathetic and miserable figure:

The clock on the stairs had just struck half past twelve when the door of Mrs Appleyard’s room opened noiselessly, inch by inch, and an old woman carrying a nightlight came out on to the landing. An old woman with head bowed under a forest of curling pins, with pendulous breasts and sagging stomach beneath a flannel dressing gown. No human being–not even Arthur–had ever seen her thus, without the battledress of steel and whalebone in which for eighteen hours a day the Headmistress was accustomed to face the world.

Other engaging characters such as the good and true employees at Appleyard College includes the French teacher, Mlle Dianne de Poitiers, Minnie the housemaid and her fiance, handyman Irish Tom. But it was the unlikely friendship between Lakeview coachman, Albert Crundall (previously an orphan and criminal) and the well-to-do Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert which to me was most enjoyable (after of course, the sense of atmosphere throughout the story).

In fact, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ although a book of high suspense and mystery, is a book about friendship. The friendship of the four girls who went missing at the monolith, Hanging Rock is at the heart of the story. The ripples of their disappearance reach out amongst the close-knit community of the village of Macedon.

Lindsay’s prose is beautiful. While reading, I could feel the warmth of the summer sun on my skin, and hear the lazy drone of flies during the picnic. Lindsay’s skill in capturing such moments is peppered throughout the story.

Miranda was a little ahead as all four girls pushed on through the dogwoods with Edith trudging in the rear. They could see her straight yellow hair swinging loose above her thrusting shoulders, cleaving wave after wave of dusty green. Until at last the bushes began thinning out before the face of a little cliff that held the last light of the sun. So on a million summer evenings would shadows lengthen upon the crags and pinnacles of the Hanging Rock.

Here are some essential elements for effective gothic writing which Lindsay has down pat in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’:

  • Foreboding setting
  • An atmosphere of dread
  • Isolated protagonist
  • Secrets which threaten the protagonist
  • High levels of emotion
  • Often strong-willed characters
  • Dark forces and ominous implications

If you’re looking for other gothic novels, here’s a list of a few of my favourites:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
  • We Have Always Lived in The Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)
  • Le Chateau by Sarah Ridout (2016)

And on that note, I wish you a very happy St Valentine’s Day. May your beloved present you with a wonderfully creepy gothic read, and if I were you, stay away from picnics!